Every few years, the missions community finds new buzzwords around which to centre conversation.
Blog posts are uploaded. Forum discussions are saturated. Books are written. This next thing promises to make all the difference in how we do mission. You’re familiar with most of these words, no doubt: “Contextualisation.” “Partnership.” “Transformation.” Even “missional.” Some are more helpful than others. I came across one article actually entitled “Co-laboring to Catalyze Cascading Church Planting Movements” (buzzword quota most certainly achieved!).
One such buzzword is in fact shared by a number of communities. As a result, it takes on multiple meanings. I’d argue that all of the meanings are valuable for Christians. At its most generic level, we are talking about how processes and systems endure over time. More specifically, it can refer to the health of societies, the soundness of economies or to the viability of our environment. Yes, it’s that word: “Sustainability.”
Sustainability might be a trendy concept, but it is certainly not a new one. For decades, we have been constantly reminded how giving out fish (usually to men, for some reason) is greatly inferior to providing fishing lessons. Most of us are familiar with the European fable of the goose that laid the golden eggs. We shake our heads at the folly of its greedy, short-sighted keepers. There is an ancient Buddhist tale, very similar, wherein a magical swan regrows the golden feathers that it regularly drops. When its owners decide to pluck them all at once, they never grow back.
There is nothing new under the sun, after all. One can effortlessly find thousands of quotes on sustainability online from celebrity twitter feeds to politicians’ sound bites to 19th Century essayists. And that doesn’t even include voices not speaking in English and not on the internet.
Principles trump trends
The Bible has a voice in this conversation as well; it is filled with relevant principles and examples. Even a rudimentary unpacking of Scripture shows that a society truly based on Biblical principles would exemplify economic and ecological sustainability, as well as the social correctives needed to get things back on track when they go amiss. The Jubilee concept is not only a superb Biblical model of encouraging sustainability; it is a model that Jesus explicitly drew upon when explaining His own ministry (Luke 4).
On a more pragmatic level, the parables and the proverbs are replete with references to the virtue of acting with good business acumen, long-term strategy, wisdom and even shrewdness. There is no biblical mandate to remain naïve and ignorant of changing realities in the world; quite the opposite is true.
Being good stewards of our finances, developing good leadership for future generations of ministry, being a lifelong learner and growing in Christian stature, being both insightful and flexible in our missiological methodology—all of these are mandated in Scripture.
Over 200 years ago, William Carey wrote something rather important. Its title went as follows:
An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens • In Which the Religious State of the Different Nations of the World, the Success of Former Undertakings, and the Practicability of Further Undertakings, Are Considered.
Carey argued that not only do we have the obligation to do mission but we should also use the means that will give us the greatest chance of fruitfulness. These were the foundations of the very document that more or less launched the Protestant missions movement. Nothing much has changed today.
Sustainability is no mere buzzword that will fade into oblivion later next month. It is making the best and wisest use of the information and resources that we have available. It is, for 2015, the means that Carey was referring to in 1792.
Modelling sustainability is simply doing mission in such a way today that we will be able to keep doing it tomorrow. And next year. And twenty years from now. And until that maranatha Day of the Lord’s coming!
Jason Mandryck is with WEC International, currently seconded to OM’s Global South Initiative. His ministry background is predominantly with Operation World, although he spent two years aboard MV Doulos. His passions include the use of information and research for mission strategy and prayer. He am currently based in Singapore with the International Director’s team.